Review of The World of Sex

I’ve read most of Henry Miller’s work but hadn’t heard of his composition entitled The World of Sex until recently reading The Selected Letters between him and Anais Nin. Impulsive Ariel, of course, jumped onto the internet, set my web browser to Amazon and two dayed it. Both delivery and in time spent reading it.

The World of Sex is an extended essay written at the time that Henry Miller’s work was being censored from publication, importation or sale of his work in the United States. He was becoming a cause célèbre in France, where he’d wrote much of his early work. However in puritanical America a number of graphic depictions of sex lead to suppression of his work. A number of copies made it into the US, making his book literally an underground phenomenon until his work was finally deemed not categorized by the legal definition of pornography, however this dynamic caused Miller much consternation and a cause for deep reflection on what sex can mean to the individual as well as the relationships between sex and art, sex and fiction, and sex and society.

As one would expect given his oeuvre, Miller tells the story of how he came to have a number of his views on sex and love through a recounting of his personal narrative. Describing his infatuations and frustrations from the vantage point of decades of distance, not to mention much internal and psychological research, provides the necessary detached frame that allows him to describe impact these impulses and urges being contained had on his – and indeed all peoples – development. Because of these constraints, be it social taboos or ideologies and religions which seek to shame the body, he comes to see these as invalid for they vastly limit our knowledge of others and ourselves.

Society takes much of the brunt of Miller’s animosity, it is an assemblage of conflicting messages that engenders neurosis is listened to. Real truth is the self, Miller believes and shows through his life and work. By rejecting those as a means for guiding oneself and allowing the internal direction one feels to fully take hold – be that in the pursuit of sexual conquests to gain self-knowledge or through living something other than the typical “get married, work hard, follow your dreams leads to failure” mantra then great things start to occur:

Our laws and customs relate to social life, our life in common, which is the lesser side of existence. Real life begins when we are alone, face to face with our unknown self. What happens when we come together is determined by our inner soliloquies. The crucial and truly pivotal events which mark our way are the fruits of silence and solitude. We attribute to chance meetings, refer to them as turning points in our life, but these encounters could never have occurred had we not made ourselves ready for them. If we possessed more awareness, these fortuitous encounters would yield still greater rewards. It is only at certain unpredictable times that we are attuned, fully expectant, and thus in a position to receive the favors of fortune. The man who is thoroughly awake knows that everything “happening” is packed with significance. He knows that not only is his own life being altered but that eventually the entire world must be affected.

Much of the many underlined passages that I have in Miller’s work relates to these moments of revelation – be it as it relates to friendship, lovers, the role of literature in society or something else. It saturates his fiction and here too, such insights appear. In one section on page 33, Miller describes a deep spiritual relationship to numerous authors that I’ve too suggested other people spend time with. Their stories, their vision, their analysis, their dynamic tension, their message, their… “X factor” was something that made it worth’s one attention to read them as well as it makes your inner vision that much more expansive.

A quote of Miller’s

There are comments Miller makes about the sexes that are open to being considered misogynistic. For instance while describing the archetypical psychological aspects of male-female sexual and romantic relationships he states the following:

“A man is usually plagued with all kinds of disturbing notions with regard to love, sex, politics, art, religion and so on. A man is always more muddled than a woman. He needs woman if for no other purpose than to be straightened out. Sometimes it takes nothing more than a good, clean, healthy fuck to do the trick.”

I’m not going to place what he says for the women here lest I seem to be endorsing it outright, but having had a lot of experience with women I think that there is some truth to it. Obviously it doesn’t apply to all, just as the above need not be the truth for all men, however I would largely agree with the above statement and feel that much of what he says is true even if not universally so. Miller, certainly, didn’t place himself fully within this mass, instead identifying himself with the “man of genius,” who through his work or by personal example, seems ever to be blazing the truth that each one is a law unto himself.

As someone versed in Miller’s work I found his reflections on his own writing to be particularly rewarding as it matched much of my memories of them. I’ve only recently begun to remind myself of him due to events in my life, but when I read this, his letters and passages like the below it all came back to me:

The Tropic of Capricorn represents the transition to a more knowing phase: from consciousness of self to consciousness of purpose. Henceforward what metamorphoses occur manifest even more through conduct than through the written word. The beginning of a conflict between the writer who is resolved to finish his task and the man who knows deep down that the desire to express oneself must never be limited to a single medium, to art, let us say, but to every phase of life. A battle, more or less conscious between Duty and Desire. That part of a man which belongs to the word seeking to do its duty; the part which belongs to God striving to fulfill the demands of destiny, which are unstable. The difficulty: to adapt to that desolate plane where only one’s powers will sustain one. From this point on the problem is to write retrospectively and act forwardly. To slip is to sink into an abyss from which there is no rescue possible. The struggle is on all fronts, and it is ceaseless and remorseless.

For fans of Miller as well as those that are interested in essay’s on sex, art, and social matters I highly recommend this book.

 

Review of Men, Mobs, and Law: Anti-lynching and Labor Defense in U.S. Radical History

One section of Master’s Thesis research included legal analysis with politically chilling effects upon anti-lynching and leftist movements in The United States of America from Harper’s Ferry to the late 1960’s. The way in which the law laid force upon the bodies that broke with expected behavior and the means by which police facilitated “corrective” behavior for these violations differs drastically. And dialectically. To suppress suppress either labor, racial and leftist political struggles is to repress the three progressive aspects of society that have been driving emancipatory ideas and practiced encased in institutions. Because of this, of course I read Men, Mobs, and Law: Anti-lynching and Labor Defense in U.S. Radical History by Rebecca N. Hill.

Hill’s history has a pleasantly journalistic feel to it. The main characters are of course detailed – the defendant – whomever she’s describing in that section – and the plaintiff – the State in the place that they were arrested – are both described and all their relationships therein. Who were those involved with the crime, what brought them to where they were right before they just were arrested, arraigned, transported, processed, jailed, for days, jailed, for months, jailed, for years, then brought to court, etc.etc.

It combines this description of their time and those around them with legal exegesis of the components of the case. This combined with local socio-political factors involved in such cases, such as the manner in which popular movements sought to impress their influence upon the courts, had a number of legal implications on social movements involved with race, class and/or labor struggles. While Sacco and Vanzetti are name dropped in the highly underrated, very funny movie War On Everyone with Alexander Skarsgård and Michael Pena. Anyway…

 

The book is organized around several dramatic cases, starting with John Brown’s trial. From this heavily police involved form of repressive behavior the the narrative goes to where the law played a less involved roll. Lynching throughout the south in the United States was a true horror that kills thousands of African Americans. Police slowed their roll on the road towards justice and would often falsify or forge documentary information, not intervene while militant bigots exercised their force upon them and, well, all around oppressed them.

Racial, Labor and Leftist social justice warriors – a term that ought be associated with esteem – sought to impress their demands that the state more justly apply it’s purported universalism, an inherently conservative position. The other says the state is unjust and wants to replace it along democratic, centralist lines rather than plutocratic ones – the preconditions for the most active ire. Labor wants the state to join its side in demanding more benefits but are not connected to the Leftists either because of lack of class conscious or lack of practical use value in linkage, a serious consideration to make considering the effect that associating with Reds could have on your work life.

While John Brown clearly engaged in the behavior he was charged with, the obverse is true of the Haymarket Martyrs. Their case spawned a holiday celebrated nearly everywhere in the world except the USA – May Day. If you’re not familiar with the case, you should look it up. What I found interesting as though Hill does not spend much time on the material evidence, of which there is none, and instead writes about the majority-immigrant leftist responses. Of course every people has a culture, but that of Chicago – the Second City, was unlike many others due to the habitus brought over from the German revolutionaries. Gymnastic, parading, militant Anarchist culture practiced by Germans and a number of other stocks from across the shore shocked the sensibilities of the local bourgeoisie.

After an incident that was, essentially, the pretext for the public execution of the Opposition Leadership Anarchist newspapers fought not just to save members but leaders. Newspapers which shared workers stories about their conditions, pay, bosses and other things now started to include writing from those inside. Rather than becoming devotional, religious character associated with sublimity their writings subverted the abolitionist martyrs sharing stories and expressions of romantic, sexual love. Anarchist newspapers published the love letters of the Chicago anarchists and their wives and girlfriends, another practice that was taken up by most socialist defense campaigns.

Hill’s history ends with the equally tragic tale of the Black Panther’s Party. With an emphasis on the Party’s organized defense apparatus raised to support George Jackson, Hill shows a man imprisoned due to political caprice rather than justice. Like The Haymarket Martyrs and Sacco and Vanzetti, his writings behind bars and public adoration of Assata were used as gristle to further help people find sympathy in their story. Having recently read their published letters and accounts – I get it!

All these and more arrests and trials forms responses with historically dependent forms of action. Organizations along class and/or racial/ethnic alliances were highly limited by place, history and the interests and powers of the state and local elite. In some cases the popular struggles were able to save the subject of their organization. Other’s no.

Hill’s history shows radicals creating interconnected networks of protest and resistance activity as well as volunteering time and donating money for massive fundraising undertakings that spanned the globe. Success in obtaining government guaranteed rights often depended on how loud and disruptive supporters could be to the normal functioning of government.

Mixed in is to this journalistic, documentary history are comments pulling together some of the themes evident in today’s world:

“Once admired as the heritage of manly individual freedom, Puritanism in the 1920s became associated with the Ku Klux Klan, along with fundamentalism, racism, capitalism, and prohibition.”

The heritage of many organizations racism persist in various ways. And yet to point this out is to become a public persona non grata. Example K:

Example on the opposite side? Trump the tee-totaller and Sacrosanct “States Rights” Sessions just did a 180 on over over a decade of federal drug enforcement policy.

These broader points build and intersperse Rebecca Hill’s account. Along with the legal proceedings, are a few interesting asides as well – such as The Red and the Black being George Jackson’s favorite novel.

Her conclusion does not lay out a platform upon which a group might be able to exercise their collective social power in order to achieve this, nor should she have to. The conditions by which that they would need to be changed would always depend upon the locals activities. What she does, however, is provide a powerful ethical imperative:

“The capacity to imagine a different world might begin with the ability to refuse to accept the characterizations of people who were willing to recklessly go against the rules of the society in which they live as wicked, misguided, wrong, foolish, or criminal. It is much harder to see the face of the “handsome sailor” on an imperfect human than it is to accept the underlying message of the modern-day nation-state that the only real heroes are the cops and soldiers who protect “us” from the rest of the world”

Review of October: The Story of the Russian Revolution

 

Based on a number of recommendations and awareness of his political bent, for quite some time I’ve been intending to read the science fiction writings of China Midvale. I’d yet, however, to get around to doing so when I saw that Verso Press was holding a contest to promote his new book  October: The Story of the Russian Revolution. I submitted an entry and sure enough was one of the lucky winners of a free signed copy of this work of non-fiction.

Excepting events in America, the buildup to and aftermath of the Russian Revolution is probably my most read about world historical event. I’ve read books solely on the subject written by those that were present, such as John Reed’s Ten Days That Shook the World or Leon Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution as well as essays by Emma Goldman and Victor Serge and, of course, Lenin’s Essential Works. I’ve read a few left and right wing histories published after the 1990s as well. I share this to establish if not a specialization of knowledge on the issue, than at least an above average familiarity with the events one would expect on such a subject. Anyway, to the book…

As a whole October is a very different creature from most of the texts that I mentioned above. This, however, is not necessarily bad. Trotsky’s writing on this period is simply magisterial and Reed’s journalistic descriptions of the sundry meetings unrest are at times nail-biting. These men had clear agendas that were intimately tied to the events that they were describing. Mieville, it seems to me, is writing this as a means of popularizing knowledge about the events in Russia and trying to do so at a distance. Because of this, as well as what I believe is a desire to avoid getting caught up in the debates of that time through extended focus on particular persons/issues it lacks some of the same passion. And yet no matter what side of the political spectrum one is on, I feel that this could be appealing to even those that aren’t Reds. I expected some sort of propagandistic asides peppered throughout the book prior to reading it, but none were there.

I could see myself assigning this book for a history class as not only does he do such an even handed job, but also as there is a glossary of terms in the back that would assist those not versed with the terms of the revolution. After a very brief historical context, Mieville begins the Story of the Russian Revolution in February, following the first revolution. It closes eight months later, in October.

Instead of highlighting an identified-with hero (Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin,etc.), Mieville focuses on the sufferings of the soldiers being ground up by the Kaiser’s troops, the unrest of the peasants, the plight of the industrial workers in St. Petersburg and Moscow, the incompetence of the Kerensky government, the rifts between the socialist parties and within the armed services. In this Mieville does a great job and consistently uses the words of those he’s writing about. As a means for creating tension, however, this is not a great technique. Since the only real character development is that of the people of the city that once paid little heed to the Bolsheviks to then viewing them as representative of their political will – I found this somewhat disappointing as well. Not that the anecdotes aren’t fascinating or the style of writing isn’t good, however my familiarity with it all made me hope for something that this wasn’t. As such I’d say that this was more for those that were unfamiliar with the topic.